BMCR 1995.02.10

Caesar and the Crisis of the Roman Aristocracy

, , Caesar and the crisis of the Roman aristocracy : a civil war reader. Oklahoma series in classical culture ; v. 18. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994. xx, 189 pages. ISBN 9780585169873. $18.95.

As the subtitle indicates, this book is a Civil War Reader, a classroom text intended for “a course in Latin for advanced undergraduate or graduate students.” The text consists principally of selections from du Pontet’s OCT of Caesar’s Commentarii de bello civili (a little over half of Book 1, the bulk of the chapters on the military operations in Spain being omitted, and about a third of Book 3) which are arranged in eight chapters. The passages from Caesar are interspersed with translated selections from Cicero’s Epistulae (a few from Pompey and Caesar are quoted in Latin) and a snippet or two of Cassius Dio. Since I was to teach the Bellum Civile last summer to just the sort of class Ruebel (R.) envisioned, I decided to give the book a trial run. The twelve students in the class were asked to write their own evaluations of the text, and their many useful insights are gratefully incorporated in this review.

The selections are accompanied by a commentary, placed beneath the relevant text, which is largely historical in nature and keeps the reader on track with the who, what, when and where questions that inevitably confront those encountering the complex history of this period for the first time. Despite R.’s disclaimer that the commentary will not focus on “small points of vocabulary or grammar” (p. xvii), the notes do in fact provide a fair amount of grammatical assistance in the form of translation or brief explanations. A substantial and quite helpful Introduction places the civil war between Pompey and Caesar in a political and social context. Four appendices (a chronological gazette, a note on Roman names, a brief discussion of the Roman legion, an explanation of the pre-Julian calendar), a short bibliography and an index nominum round out the book. The book, it should be noted, is built to last: it is hardcover (with a gold-embossed red leatherette cover), and the signatures are sewn rather than glued.

The concept of such readers is certainly not new, and for this period in particular the idea has merit. Reading the Bellum Civile in conjunction with Cicero’s Epistulae is a valuable exercise, and a book that brings the material together, or at least some of it, in a comparatively inexpensive fashion should be welcome. But R. has done more than that. The selections have been made with very specific purposes in mind, as he discusses in detail in the Preface. There R. asserts that the events and persons of this period “require our evaluation in their historical moment in a way that will not permit detachment or neutrality.” He adds, “…the study of Caesar provides not only a feeling of participation in exciting and momentous events but also the opportunity for rigorous humanistic inquiry into questions of value, morality, and political action and expediency” (p. xv). And further, “The intent of this course is to provide a view of Caesar that can be attacked or defended by the reader. The assumption will be that neutrality to Caesar is neither desirable nor possible; the reader, in other words, must confront the same choices that Cicero and others had to make in this period of civil upheaval” (p. xvi). To that end R. has chosen passages to illustrate Caesar’s qualities as a “politician, statesman, and propagandist” (p. xv).

With these ambitious aims in mind, R. directs the reading by drawing attention to the nuances of Caesar’s presentation of events and including contrasting points of view as evidenced primarily in Cicero’s letters. This seems at first glance like a sensible exercise. But putting the material before students and explicating it is one thing, interpreting it for them is quite another; and in this respect R., true to his own injunction, is seldom neutral. To cite one obvious instance, when R. comes to a critical crux early in Book 1—Caesar’s apparent fudging of what he knew and when he knew it before crossing the Rubicon ca. January 11/12 of 49—he comes to Caesar’s defense. Although R. concedes that this is an example of “clear misrepresentation,” between Civ. 1.6 and 7 he inserts an explanation (which is admittedly not new) to the effect that Caesar is not “rearranging events in his interest” but rather following an ancient historiographical convention that dictated how simultaneously occurring events could be represented. This apology is later repeated, in a note to Civ. 1.10 arguing that “Caesar’s aim is not to obfuscate the issues” (p. 60, n. 87). R.’s certainty notwithstanding, it is very difficult to come to any firm conclusions on this point, particularly in light of the competing evidence from other sources such as Suetonius or Dio. R. fails to mention that such evidence exists (or the extent of scholarly debate on the subject), and as a result his explanation looks far more persuasive than it really is.

Yet in the face of difficulties such as these—and there are many (in both Caesar’s text and R.’s commentary)—one should advise rather than discourage “detachment” and “neutrality” or (better yet) concentrate on other matters. To be sure, R. rarely fails to note problematic passages and is quick to point out occasions when Caesar represents matters in a manner most favorable to himself, but in general R. glosses over the complexities of the historical interpretation, usually to Caesar’s benefit. He includes, for instance, Dio’s account of the mutiny and subsequent decimation of Caesar’s army near Placentia as he was returning from the campaign in Spain. Caesar notoriously omits all mention of this episode, although it is attested in several sources, and R. rightly points out that to have included it would have tarnished the author’s image as an effective leader. R. should have stopped there, but instead he adds that actually the event demonstrated “how Caesar could command the respect and obedience of recalcitrant troops by sheer force of personality” (p. 119). The decimation he inflicted probably had something to do with it as well. In short, there is an alternative, less sympathetic, and equally plausible reading of the Bellum Civile that R. seldom articulates but frequently and rather too vigorously refutes.

Cynthia Damon has recently formulated an eminently sensible approach to teaching the Bellum Civile (“Caesar’s Practical Prose,”CJ 89.2 [1994] 183-95). It is an approach with which I fully agree, but for several reasons it would be difficult to implement Damon’s approach with R.’s book. My principal quarrel with Caesar and the Crisis of the Roman Aristocracy therefore has less to do with its overall quality and more with the way I prefer to read and teach Caesar. R. has little to say, for example, about Caesar’s style and the literary qualities of his writing. For someone convinced that the way Caesar writes is as interesting as what he writes, a commentary that fails to address these matters is less useful than one that does. The selections also severely restrict the extent to which one can pursue other aspects of the Bellum Civile. R. omits much of the military narrative in Books 1 and 3, and all of Book 2, though it is in these passages (especially the controversial ‘Curio-tragedy’ of Book 2) that we can best appreciate Caesar’s skill as a writer and even as a “propagandist.” R. assiduously notes recurrent themes and provides cursory summaries of the omitted portions, but despite this one loses any real feel for the unity of the text, the care with which events are structured and described, or the function of repeated scenes and motifs. In addition, the absence of any critical apparatus is regrettable. In a text as bedeviled by textual problems as the Bellum Civile, it is necessary to be aware of just how tenuous many readings are and the extent to which they affect our interpretations. R. maintains that he feels “strongly that not even undergraduates are damaged by being made aware of the difficult state of our texts” (p. xix) and he even offers a few emendations of his own, but he rarely draws attention to any of these difficulties, and the reader must inevitably conclude that they really do not matter all that much. That fact alone, in my view, renders the text unsuitable for an advanced Latin class.

R.’s text presents a few problems of its own. There are several unfortunate typos, notable simply because they render the Latin incomprehensible (e.g., “amicorum” for “armorum,” “adiutorem” for “adiutor,” “nisi” for “misi,” “dimmitat” for “dimittat”); or slips that confuse the historical situation (Caralis is erroneously located in Sicily rather than Sardinia; Lentulus Spinther is at one point confounded with Domitius Ahenobarbus). In several places du Pontet’s text has been repunctuated, often with unhappy results (e.g., 1.26.2, 3.43.2-3). On a couple of occasions R. prints a reading not adopted by du Pontet in the OCT without acknowledging the fact, contrary to the promise of p. xix. Thus, for example, at 1.14.5 we find “familias” for the OCT’s “familiaris,” with no explanation despite the fact that the former reading, which is favored by Klotz in his Teubner edition, alters the tone of the passage.

In R.’s defense, he has fulfilled the promise of the Preface; students who use this text will indeed learn something about the nature of the war between Caesar and Pompey, and in fact the book works best (as it was meant to) as a study in the personal and political conflicts that lay behind the war. Students and teachers can be assured, moreover, that they will be using a text compiled by a scholar who has clearly studied the period in some depth. As a means of studying Caesar’s Bellum Civile, however, the book has limitations. If the point of one’s course is to acquire a deep familiarity with the Bellum Civile and its associated problems (historical, historiographical, textual, etc.)—as I would prefer in a Latin class for advanced undergraduates and graduate students—students will be better advised to use the OCT and consult John Carter’s recently completed two-volume edition and commentary published by Aris & Phillips (1991-93).